Onions: A Short Essay About Family
The house on Pine Brook Curve
Knife snaps against cutting board. Birds chirp on the porch. My mother’s weary hands slice, dice, sliding chopped onion to the side. She wears a white apron decorated by children’s sticky fingers and the morning’s dishes, which still pile in the sink. Sunlight filters through translucent curtains just in front.
Tears stream down her face.
“Mom, are you Ok?” I ask, 7-year-old hands gripping the counter, chin on the ledge.
“It’s just the onions,” her voice comes. She doesn’t bother wiping them away; takes a breath. Wisps of thin hair frame her face. Then, “It will pass.”
But long after the onions have been transferred into their waiting boiling pot, peppers now in their place, the tears are still there.
“Why are you crying?” again I pester, hands tugging her shirt.
Mom puts down the knife and buries her face in the sticky apron. Steam bubbles up from the pot, spilling over on the stove.
A minute later, it’s still steaming.
“Mom,” I tug.
She turns to the stove and switches it off, removing the pot’s cover. Then her arms — strong from carrying children — are around me.
“Nana died today a year ago. I’m just really sad,” she whispers in my ear. I hug back. The water stops spilling.
A screen door slams as a brother exits. One of eight, crammed into this tiny blue duplex a stone’s throw from the Big Y supermarket. Mom doesn’t look up; her arms still around me. My Nana’s bell on the door jingles as it shuts; the one that used to be on the door of her house in Randolph.
I remember Nana’s hugs, too — arms strong from carrying children – even in a sterile hospital bed. Hands shaking; skin translucent, but arms strong.
My Nana, Ann McGuire, was a powerful woman, both of character and emotion. One of those people whose presence you feel when they walk into the room. The temperature changes ever so slightly; it gets a little warmer.
The old country
Like so many other Irish people who flocked to New England fleeing the Potato Famine in the mid-1800’s, Nana’s parents came to America seeking a better future. As a young woman, she fell in love with Walter McGuire – who died when Mom was 17 – a stolid working class man with a wry smile who lived in South Boston – descendent of Hugh Maguire, Lord of Fermanagh, who died fighting in Ireland’s Nine Years War. Hugh’s name was revered; after his death, a bridge was named after him in the north.
But not so in America. Customs agents couldn’t understand the accent and changed Maguire with an ‘a’ to McGuire, with a ‘c.’ The name died.
Traditions were forgotten as generations piled onto generations.
Memory wasn’t lost, though. Perpetual longing for home, the old country, hung over the McGuire clan; over my mother, her sisters and brothers. Uncles and Aunts talked about how beautiful Ireland was; how quaint the lifestyle, while holding beers and watching football. Pilgrimage back was mecca. It was the most important thing anyone could do.
But many didn’t have the money to do so. And so, my family turned inward, imploding in close-knit circles from Holyoke to Boston held together by that mutual longing.
When Nana died, Mom lost both a mother and a connection to the old world. The chord snipped a little bit closer to America; another step away from home.
It wasn’t all bad, though. In this transition, immigrating to America, new traditions were formed.
Like hugs: hugs from aunts that swept me off my feet, enveloping body and soul; hugs from uncles that crushed my ribs squeezing air from lungs; hugs from Nana that have stayed with me all of these years; hugs from Mom that say no matter what she’ll be there.